Photo: Anthony DeSantis

What It's Like to Take a Cross-Country Astrophotography Odyssey by Van

United States Road Trips Astronomy
by Eben Diskin Sep 11, 2023

Taking a year off and traveling cross country is a dream many never actually get to live out. Those who procrastinate, and explain away their road trip reluctance, often do so by citing real-life responsibilities and jobs. Taking a year-long vacation would mean neglecting a career. But what if you could do both? That’s what aspiring astrophotographer Anthony DeSantis did when he embarked on a one-year vanlife trip across the US — in a van he built himself — with the goal of turning his passion into a career.

DeSantis first became interested in astrophotography in 2017 during a trip to Iceland. “One night there happened to be some Aurora activity,” he told Matador Network, “and though I really had no idea how to photograph the night sky or even what astrophotography was, I couldn’t help but grab my little point and shoot camera and take a picture. It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that I successfully captured my first image of the Milky Way. I was immediately hooked.”

To learn more about the craft, DeSantis would make weekend trips to Acadia National Park in Maine — from his home in Haverhill Massachusetts — in pursuit of the dark skies necessary for good astrophotography. The only issue? “The distance I needed to travel, finding a place to sleep after shooting, the cost of these excursions, and the infrequency that I could make it happen,” always seemed to get in the way. It’s also difficult to plan an astrophotography trip in advance, since clear, dark skies are essential, you need to make sure that the moon phase will give you enough time to shoot before moonrise or after moonset.

“The opportunities to get to truly dark skies on the East Coast, where I’m from, are pretty few and far between,” DeSantis said. “Out west, they’re pretty abundant. For a long time I’ve wanted to take a trip there to shoot astrophotography, but it wasn’t until the pandemic happened that I really started thinking about buying a van. So I sold my house, bought a van, and started building it into my mobile astrophotography studio.”

Indeed, having an astrophotography travel hobby and quitting your job to pursue that full time are two very different things. The first hurdle was building out what would become his home for the next year. According to DeSantis, the good thing about vans is that they can be purpose built to fit your exact needs. The bad thing, however, is that purpose-building a van can take quite a long time, and come with many unexpected hurdles. In his case, it took a year and a half.

“My key must-haves for the van were a bed, a desk space, a toilet, ability to cook and wash dishes, and a solid electrical system,” he said. “Building out a van was a much bigger task than I imagined. There were so many things to learn along the way. I had a lot of experience with tools, but never with projects like building a cabinet. I’d say the biggest challenge was the electrical system.”

Ultimately, the work paid off, and DeSantis was ready to hit the road in a van that looks like it was built by a professional vanlife rental company.

While part of the thrill of a cross-country road trip is the spontaneity, planning is still involved. That’s especially important for astrophotographers, as dark sky destinations need to be identified and visited during peak Milky Way season.

“I had a general idea of places I wanted to go and a rough idea of what time of year,” he said. “For example, I wanted to get my desert locations done in spring to avoid being in the desert in the peak of summer while I’m living in a metal box. But I’ve had to make a lot of travel decisions on the fly. It’s nearly impossible to plan a whole year in detail. The most important destination factor, of course, is dark skies.”

DeSantis explained how dark skies are ranked using the Bortle Scale, which goes from one to nine (one being the darkest and nine having the most light pollution). He always tries to shoot in skies that are a Bortle class one to three.

“The next most important thing,” he says, “is your foreground subject, and if it’s possible to take a picture with the Milky Way behind it. Since the Milky Way is found in the southern skies, if you find an interesting subject or foreground but it faces north, you’re going to have to find another spot. For example if you wanted to take a photo of the Milky Way core over the Grand Canyon you’d have to go to the north rim of the grand canyon rather than the south.”

For many (maybe most), vanlife isn’t about pursuing a profession at all. It’s about the experience — both social and scenic. And that experience isn’t always how it looks on Instagram. One of the biggest challenges for DeSantis was loneliness. When you’re on the road for several months, disconnected from your friends and family back home, it’s natural to feel isolated.

“If it weren’t for frequent phone calls with friends, family, and especially my girlfriend back home,” he says, “I might have ended the trip early. I’ve met some great people on the road but they’ve been fairly few and far between. One month, my only in-person socialization was with people working the register at stores when I was stocking up on food or buying gas. I found myself foregoing the self check-out just to have a little human interaction.”

So, is the headache worth it? For DeSantis, the answer is assuredly “yes.”

“While I’m not done with my trip yet,” he says, “I would already call it a success because I’ve built a portfolio, honed my photography skills, and I’ve had some incredible experiences. I often remind myself that many people will never have an opportunity like this to just take a year and follow their passion, living each day for yourself and no one else.”

Though he didn’t exactly set out to be an “influencer,” there’s no doubt that many reading about DeSantis’ experience would love to follow in his footsteps — whether in the field of astrophotography, or simply the no-frills van lifestyle. Knowing what he knows now, if DeSantis had to do it all over again, he’d certainly change some things.

“If you’re considering vanlife I would strongly recommend a try before you buy approach,” he advises. “Either rent a van and test out the lifestyle for a week or two, or just go live out of your car for a bit. Living in a van is not as easy and glamorous as you often see on social media. Everyday tasks are more time consuming or complicated. Whether that’s having to find a gym to take a shower or finding a place where you can refill your water supply, needing to go to the laundromat, or even just finding a place to throw out your trash. One of the biggest challenges is decision fatigue. Every day I have to decide where I’m going, where I’m parking for the night, and where I’m going to get food.”

Luckily, novice vanlifers aren’t completely on their own. There are plenty of helpful apps designed to make it easier for nomads to accomplish those pesky little tasks.

“iOverlander is great for finding more urban areas to park, places you can fill your water, RV dump sites, places to shower, and much more,” DeSantis says. “FreeRoam is better for finding boondocking locations, but doesn’t help you find things like showers or water fill stations.”

Above all, though, the most important thing for prospective vanlifers to keep in mind is ironically: it’s not all about the van.

“I see a lot of people on social media who make vanlife about the van, and I fell victim to that in my build process,” DeSantis admits. “I got a little too hung up on making the perfect living environment. Vans are only as good as the places they can take you. Make your vanlife about the world outside the van.”

Stop by DeSantis’ Instagram page to follow his astro adventures around the US, and check out his official website to browse photos and merch inspired by his travels.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.